Monday, 24 April 2017

Wellsian Reference

For a neat literary reference to HG Wells, apart from the silk top hat, check out pp. 199-200 of John C. Wright's The Golden Age (New York, 2003). I did not get it until I had reached the end of p. 199. A clue, if you want it, is in the image for this post. Sf writers should acknowledge Wells as Poul Anderson does at least twice.

I apologize for the brevity of this post but I really must get out of here and do something else. Three posts have been published over an extended breakfast. Self-indulgence on my part.

Transient Consciousness

A "sophotect" (Poul Anderson) or a "Sophotech" (John C. Wright) is an Artificial Intelligence.

"'We Sophotechs agree on certain core doctrines, including those conclusions to which any thinker not swayed by passion comes...'"

(Are there any such conclusions? Yes, in mathematics and logic, at least.)

"'...but it is the nature of living systems that differences in experience lead to differences in judgments of relative worth.'"
-John C. Wright, The Golden Age (New York, 2003), p. 195.

That is fair comment. Why are some analytic philosophers Christians and others atheists? Each of us is a unique combination of genes. Each adult organism is the present expression of a unique sequence of organism-environment interactions. Each brain has developed distinctive internal interconnections of which we are unaware. How do we manage to agree about anything? Because we are also social, cooperative, linguistic organisms.

"'Many Sophotechs only exist for a few fractions of a second, performing certain tasks, developing new arts and sciences, or exploring all the ramifications of certain chains of thought, before they merge again into the base conversation.'" (ibid.)

New arts and sciences in fractions of a second! Anderson's Didonian personalities exist only temporarily. The inorganic intelligences in Anderson's Genesis divide and re-merge.

All self-conscious organisms exist only temporarily. We emerge from a social/linguistic/cultural matrix and contribute to it before our bodies re-merge with their environment. Our condition is essentially that of the Sophotechs and the Didonians. The Sophotechs contribute more in less time.

Programmed Personalities?

I reproduce this quotation from Poul Anderson again in order to discuss its content. Let's try to clarify some terms as applied in our experience:

organisms respond sensitively to their environments and some organismic sensitivity is also conscious sensation;

mechanisms, like clocks, have internal parts that move in ways predetermined by their manufacturers;

a machine is a mechanism, not an organism;

a program is a set of rules applied unconsciously (mechanically or electronically) by a machine;

a human being is an organism and a human personality is self-conscious.

So can a personality be downloaded into a program?

However: can electronic interactions within a sensitive artifact duplicate the functions of electrochemical interactions within an organic brain?

I don't know. I am just trying to clarify what we are talking about.

Fictions about AIs: it is difficult to follow a narrative when viewpoint characters voluntarily undergo temporary partial amnesia. In John C. Wright's The Golden Age, Helion says that he must reexperience being burned to death while forgetting that this is a simulation but will remember on waking what the pain was for. What was it for? I have lost the thread but am not engaged enough with the characters to want to reread and find out.

A Computer And A Dog

Much sf used to be set in the twenty first century. Now novels written and set in the twenty first century read like what would have been sf fifty years ago:

gigabytes;
software;
downloaded articles;
P.D.F. files;
C.D.s;
a Zip drive;
disks -

- are mentioned in one paragraph on p. 251 of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire (London, 2010).

But another reference harks back to the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries and also forges a link with Poul Anderson. A detective examining a crime scene expects to find a second computer somewhere in the apartment but fails to do so. His way of expressing the significance of this is:

The strange thing about the dog is that it did not bark, my dear Watson. (ibid.)

Even if we do not remember the dog that did not bark, my dear Watson would be a giveaway, like "Horatio":

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio..."

Holmes, like Hamlet, is culturally embedded and will continue to be quoted in fiction beyond the twenty first century.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Changing SF

We have just watched a science programme on TV:

liquid water, heat sources and organic matter and therefore possibly also life in the outer Solar System;

dark matter holding the galaxy together;

dark energy accelerating cosmic expansion;

possibly 95% of the universe composed of dark matter and dark energy;

what does the universe look like to beings who perceive that 95% and not the 5% visible to us?

Must an sf writer change his fictional premises every couple of decades? JRR Tolkien devoted his entire creative life to a single fictional history but was able to do this because his series was a prehistoric fantasy, not futuristic sf. By contrast, Poul Anderson's Psychotechnic History and Genesis could not be more dissimilar. Anderson became dissatisfied with his first future history because:

"That clutter of props and backdrops came nowhere near hinting at the variety, strangeness, and sheer wonder of the real universe..." (SFWA Bulletin, Fall 1979, p. 8)

I have reread that series recently and thought that it was a substantial future history but there is no way that Anderson's entire output could have been limited to that single fictional timeline. Probably some of his successors now describe interstellar explorers' encounters with dark matter and dark energy but I have not kept up with more recent sf.

More Yamamura?

If Poul Anderson had written more novels about Trygve Yamamura, then I hope that the series would have transcended the mystery genre. IMO, a dozen interchangeable murders ingeniously investigated and solved would not have been a great contribution to literature. Of course I have read the entire Holmes canon and also several Montalbano novels because I liked that character on TV and the paperbacks were in the bookshop but I never got into reading all of Poirot or all of Marple.

I have commented that each installment of the Yamamura series hints at the supernatural and that the novels also display the perspective of an sf writer but neither of these directions would have been the way to continue the series much though I like multi-genre experimentation. A novel set in the here and now can be about any aspect of the character's life or about other characters that he meets. Ian Fleming managed to do this with three James Bond short stories and with two thirds of one of the novels. I did not expect to reference Fleming when I began this post but he fits.

Two Trilogies

Poul Anderson stopped writing Trygve Yamamura detective novels because he was able to earn more by writing sf whereas Stieg Larsson stopped writing Millennium thrillers because unfortunately he died young. Thus, both series, terminating after only three volumes, became de facto "trilogies" although each could have been longer and Larsson had planned ten volumes.

Anderson's detective conventionally investigates murders whereas Larsson's journalists investigate criminal activities that come to involve murders, police investigations and the intelligence services. Both series have, to this reader, exotic settings: San Francisco and Sweden, mainly Stockholm.

Larsson, a journalist, wrote only these three volumes of fiction whereas Anderson wrote - how many novels and short stories? One criterion of good fiction is that it can be read with pleasure and reread with increased pleasure. This is certainly true of Larsson's trilogy and of most works by Anderson. I have yet to read Murder In Black Letter and am not in any hurry to read the other two but I expect that they will eventually be reread and with increased pleasure.

Higher Wisdom?

"'...the Warlocks taught me that the nonrational sections of the brain were sources of higher wisdom, that dreams, instincts, and intuitions were superior to logic.'"
-John C. Wright, The Golden Age (New York, 2003), p. 192.

We have discussed these issues in relation to Poul Anderson's works. See links here and here.

"Nonrational" can mean either pre- or trans-rational. Only "trans-" would be "higher." Instincts, dreams and intuitions are different phenomena. Instincts are prerational. A dream might be the vehicle for an intuition which might be a realization resulting from unconscious mental processes and therefore not from conscious reasoning. Logic is consistency between propositions, therefore basic to any thought. An intuiton not arrived at by logically reasoning would nevertheless have to be thought about logically.

Biological And Technological Evolution

Let's look in a bit more detail at what Wells, Anderson and Wright do here.

Biological
Applying Darwinism to Victorian class society gave Wells the bourgeoisie devolving into Eloi and the proletariat devolving into Morlocks.
Anderson assumed continued evolution of humanity into Danellians.

Technological
Humanity coexists with, merges with or is superceded by AI.

That seems comprehensive?

Originality, Quality And Quantity

The previous post referred to:

one of the founders of modern science fiction, HG Wells;
a current sf writer, John C. Wright;
between these, no less than three relevant works by Poul Anderson -

- while at the same the post omitted the equally relevant but slightly more complicated human-AI interactions in Anderson's mammoth Harvest Of Stars Tetralogy, my point as always being that we applaud Anderson not only for original contributions to sf but also for a body of work displaying both quality and quantity.

(And grammatically this post was a single sentence - until I added this one!)